Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Steamboats and keelboats ventured onto many of Iowa’s rivers including the Maquoketa, Wapsipinicon, Red Cedar, Iowa, Skunk and the Des Moines. In fact, according to Caroline Phelps, keel boats were manufactured for awhile at Iowaville.

At first, the waterways were used by trappers, traders, and Indians for carrying furs to ports on the Mississippi. Later, settlers shipped crop cargo to far away outlets.

Crossing the Mississippi River and other large rivers in Iowa was often very difficult, even at well-known fords. Covered wagons often could not cross until they reached a point where there was ferry service. By 1837, regular running ferries carried people, wagons, and livestock across the Mississippi at Dubuque, Burlington, and Buffalo (four miles below Davenport.) Before that, Indians sometimes helped settlers cross the river with their canoes.

Although ferry rates on the Mississippi were established and regulated by the government, crossing streams could be rather expensive. For example, the charge for carrying a team and wagon across the Mississippi was $1.00; while extra horses and cattle cost 12.5 cents each. Frequency of service and charges on tributaries varied with each community.

At first ferrymen used a flatboat, a clumsy affair made of logs and heavy planks that resembled a raft and needed sturdy oarsmen. Soon a horse-driven ferry was introduced, and finally steam-driven ferries were put into operation.

Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Keosauqua, Pittsburg, and Douds-Leando all had ferry service before bridges were built. Selma and Kilbourne may have also had ferries. I don’t know whether this was a standard price, but ferrymen charged a quarter for a team and wagon to cross the Des Moines River at Douds.

Trips across the river could be exciting and eventful, as trees and other floating debris could cause problems. Once during high water, the ferry between Douds and Leando broke loose and carried my great-grandparents, Aaron and Charlotte Ratcliff, a considerable distance downstream before they were rescued.

Small streams could be crossed very quickly as it took only eight minutes to cross the Mississippi by ferry. In spite of the fast service, using the ferry was an expensive luxury. People crossed the streams by ferry only when it was absolutely necessary, and only a privileged few made this an every-day routine. Communities on opposite banks of streams were never truly unified until after bridges were built.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick